My introduction to Barbara Kingsolver happened over a decade ago when I first read her debut novel, The Bean Trees. At the time, I loved the book. I had just discovered popular, contemporary women writers, and I could not get enough. I can’t remember exactly what went down in The Bean Trees, but it had to do with a woman living life on her own terms, a theme that makes me weak in the knees. There was probably also some troubling imperialist nostalgia stuff going on there too, but, like I said, it’s been over a decade. Who can remember?
I hadn’t read Kingsolver for many years, when I picked up her latest book, Flight Behavior. The book takes place in Appalachia and centers on Dellarobia, an uneducated, but curious and sympathetic character, who is trapped in an unhappy marriage, which is really just an unhappy life. That life is changed forever when the family land is inundated with monarch butterflies, whose migratory patterns are disrupted by climate change. The butterflies are the catalyst for opening up a world of possibilities and [spoiler alert!] ultimately leading Dellarobia to self fulfillment and transformation. The message is education and information are key.
The book has everything I love: a down on her luck Appalachian woman, monarch butterflies, and sheep! It’s everything I look for in a novel, and yet the book sometimes fell flat. Kingsolver is writing from a rural poor Appalachian perspective, but in many ways Kingsolver herself seems to lack that perspective. I think of myself as someone who understands both sheep farming and the rural poor (though, to be fair, not the Appalachian variety), two things that are dealt with extensively in the novel. The book demonstrates that Kingsolver is a scientist at heart and a keen observer of humans and nature, but seems one step removed.
In regards to the sheep details, I recognized most of the information from a sheep raising manual written by Carol Ekarius, who herself is a transplant to sheep farming and a hobby farmer. In Flight Behavior, these characters are trying to make a living off of sheep, and to do so, they would need a completely different approach than the hobby farming Kingsolver portrays.
Next, it has been my experience that the rural poor have a certain pride, but the Dellarobia character has none of that pride. She is just completely insecure and humiliated by her life in every way. This is made clear as visitors and highly educated scientists begin to visit the butterflies. Even the transformed Dellarobia seemed to lack some necessary perspective in regards to her own behavior. I guess that’s reality though, isn’t it?
The pros of the book are that Kingsolver is a scientist, and her nerdy descriptions of the labs, the butterflies, and the processes are endearing. This kind of novel has the difficult task of balancing an engaging narrative and characters, while simultaneously commenting on environmental politics, and that’s not an easy job. In the end, I think Kingsolver achieved that balance. I read the thing to the end, and got something out of it. There are lovely uses of language and description throughout, and her metaphors are apt. It wasn’t a story that allowed me to suspend disbelief and fully engage because of the moments where I was thinking, “She would never do/say that thing.” Or, “a sheep farmer would never do xyz.”
When I hear “Appalachian women’s literature,” my heart melts a little bit. If you’re like me, Flight Behavior is worth reading. If environmentalist gets your blood pumping, you’ll probably love the book. If you find that this book isn’t for you, do go back and read her first book, though. That one was a real gem.